Basten Gokkon, Jakarta – In early September, a whale shark washed up on a beach in the Indonesian province of West Java. Within hours, locals had chopped up the 7-meter (23-foot) fish for its meat and bones, considered a rare delicacy in Indonesia.
Yet eating a whale shark, even one found dead as in this case, has been illegal in the country since 2013, when Indonesia banned the capture, trade and exploitation of the species, Rhincodon typus.
But records from 2002 to 2022 show that whale sharks continued to be butchered and sold along the southeastern coast of the island of Java, either after stranding or being caught unintentionally by fishers, according to a study published Aug. 17 in the journal Animals.
"As far as I know there is indeed no targeted fishing, in the sense that I have no evidence that at any given day a crew goes out specifically to find and catch a whale shark," study author Vincent Nijman, a professor of anthropology at Oxford Brookes University, U.K., told Mongabay in an email interview. "I do not think this would be economically viable anyway."Whale sharks landed at Pangandaran Bay. Images courtesy of Vincent Nijman.
For his study, Nijman collected 58 reports of whale shark landings that he both observed in person and found on the news, along Pangandaran Bay, which stretches 40 kilometers (25 miles) along the Indian Ocean coast. The region is an important habitat for a population of whale sharks.
While some of the beached whale sharks were pushed back into the ocean if alive, or buried if already dead, Nijman reported cases where locals would cut up the body parts, especially for the flesh, fins and liver, and sell them. The study found indications that the money generated from these sales was distributed to the community, used for the repair of the local mosque, or for other community causes. Nijman noted that fishers generally had mixed feelings as they encountered whale sharks, alive or dead, because of both their economic value and protected status.
"I think this trade in whale sharks is in part symptomatic of how we, or perhaps more specifically, certain parts of Indonesian society and government, deal with the environment and imperiled species," he said.
"If you can openly land and butcher this massive animal, in the presence of law enforcement officers, officers of the fisheries department, in front of community leaders, etc. then there appears to be a misunderstanding of how we should implement certain rules and regulations," he said. "And as I present in my paper, it is not a one-off, it occurs regularly enough for me to write a paper about it."
The study estimated 10 to 30 whale shark landings each year along the study area at a minimum. Combined with the species' slow growth rate and high longevity (and consequently low natural mortality), whale sharks in this region are highly vulnerable to overexploitation. Extrapolating those numbers out to the rest of Indonesia, it's clear that artisanal fisheries pose a greater threat to the survival of whale sharks than previously assumed, the study says.
Indonesia, with its thousands of islands, has the longest coastline of any country in Asia. Its waters serve as both a habitat and an important migratory route for various species of marine megafauna, from whale sharks and manta rays, to whales and dolphins. Bycatch or beachings of these animals are common enough occurrences that the government and conservation groups are working to train citizens across the archipelago to properly deal with them in absence of authorities and resources. A key part of this outreach is emphasizing that the exploitation of any protected species is a crime punishable by up to five years in prison and 100 million rupiah ($6,500) in fines.
Efin Muttaqin, a conservationist with the Fisheries Resource Center of Indonesia (FRCI), who was not involved in Nijman's research, said the study underscores the need for the government to boost its efforts in raising awareness of the whale shark's protected status and what that entails.
"The protected status has been there for a while now, not just since the past one or two years, which means the assumption is that everybody knows of it already," Efin said in an interview after reviewing the paper at Mongabay's request. "But the evidence shows that [whale shark exploitation] remains. So there's a gap here then."
Besides raising more awareness about the conservation of whale sharks, Efin said conservation authorities and experts could offer incentives to fishers who carry out the proper procedures for dealing with an accidentally caught or beached whale shark.
"In terms of research, we need to find out why some people still do this," cut it up for its meat, he said. "It's concerning when we judge them without knowing what forces them to do it or what are their needs behind it. It could just be that they really aren't aware of it."
Both Nijman and Efin said they doubted the current illegal exploitation of whale sharks would escalate to the point that it becomes intentional or targeted. For now, they said, it remains opportunistic, due to the economic unsustainability.
"I am not sure if it will become targeted – but even if it is not, it can still have a marked impact on local populations," Nijman said. "And of course this is on top of all the other threats and challenges whale sharks in this region face."